Shakespeare once wrote, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows,” and the same is true with hatred and jealousy. The Pharisees and the Herodians were people who represented opposite political views. While being unnatural associates, they come together to trap Jesus. The Pharisees opposed paying taxes to a foreign king as an infringement of the ‘divine right of God’. The Herodians, while supporting Herod the Great, favoured collaboration with the Romans and paying taxes to Caesar. The followers of Jesus hated the Romans for both theological and economic reasons. Jesus is trapped between a rock and a hard place of sneaky alternatives. The question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” was a double-edged sword that would slice Jesus on either side! The Pharisees-Herodians alliance is malicious from the start. They are neither interested in God nor in taxes. They were out to trap Jesus.
However, their trap fails. Jesus asks for a coin and traps them with another question, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The Pharisees, who opposed paying taxes to Caesar, have their pockets full of Roman coins. Jesus’ pockets are empty of coins, since he is an itinerant vagabond without land or fixed employment! They knew the likeness and the image on the coin. It was stamped with a profile portrait and read, Tiberius Caesar, Divi Augusti Filius Augustus, and on the reverse. Pontifex Maximus.
Those who used these coins, engraved with religious and political images, became slaves of the Roman system. They recognised the emperor’s sovereignty. Jesus is free. He is not a subject of Caesar’s empire; Jesus belongs to God’s reign. Jesus answers them, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The coins were stamped with Caesar’s image, but every human being is stamped with God’s image. Jesus was simply telling them to fulfil their obligations to the tax collectors. But Jesus also implied strongly don’t leave in Caesar’s hands what belongs to God. Jesus stressed the need for one’s primary duty to God. We are first ‘citizens’ of heaven and then ‘citizens’ of the earth. But, what really belonged to Caesar? Everything really belonged to God. We too are caught in the trap of independent spheres of power and obligation. Let not God’s Kingdom find second place in your life. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and all the rest will fall in line.”
Fr Glenford Lowe